Peter and Matt's 2019 Kruger Challenge
by Kelso

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/25/2019
Entry Point: From CANADA (EP 71)
Exit Point: North Fowl Lake (EP 70)  
Number of Days: 3
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
This is a story of setting a goal and giving it everything we had, mentally and physically, across Voyageur’s National Park and the Boundary Waters. Many have asked how we broke the longstanding record by a full 11 hours. It was simple. After a great first day with favorable conditions, we were too committed to let our good start slip away, so we hung on grimly until the finish. There were beautiful moments enjoyed in the most pristine corners of the wilderness, with incredible stars, sunrises and sunsets, a rainbow, a black bear, and peaceful glassy waters. There were moments of fun and laughter as we pushed through goals, ran rapids, cheered each other on, and met family and friends. There were moments of weakness, discouragement, and frustration in the damp cold and dark, struggling to hold together and depending on each other to push through. The pace was grueling and relentless. We were too driven to pause and admire all the places we would have liked to enjoy. Attempting this challenge meant sacrificing many of the good and renewing aspects of a wilderness canoe trip, but now that our crazy goal is complete we can finally relax and return to enjoying the wilderness in the way we love.
Part 4 of 4
Day 3, Monday May 27 – Tuesday May 28:

This was it. The final day. With our great start, we were thinking that we might still be on pace to reach Lake Superior at the Grand Portage Stockade in about 66 hours, if the good weather held. But the bitter northeast headwind was getting worse. Still not enough to slow us down, but enough to make us anxious.

On South Lake I was again delirious. I had difficulty maintaining a straight heading, even though it should have been one of the easiest lakes to navigate on the whole route. Suddenly beside the right bow of the canoe I saw a large road sign with a right-turn arrow, and I swerved the canoe to obey.

An endless rapid stream of complete nonsense words were tumbling through my mind, and I couldn’t turn it off. We were both having trouble staying awake while paddling, so we kept waking each other to maintain the pace and heading.

At the portage from South Lake to Rat Lake I was very cold and miserable, desperately wishing I had more layers to put on. We started heating some rice and an MRE, which steamed as we crossed tiny Rat Lake. At the landing Matt took a bathroom break, and I put my hands into the food heater bag to try to warm them. The relief was wonderful. I huddled behind a tree trunk, holding the MRE heater packets, and fell peacefully asleep until Matt returned a couple minutes later. Then we ate our food and got back on the water to face the cold and drizzle on Rose Lake. “Come on, Peter,” said Matt, “we have to make it to the Pigeon River before dark.” I knew he was right. I couldn’t imagine safely running the whitewater rapids of the Pigeon River at flood stage without plenty of light to see the rocks.

The hallucinations continued. Matt kept seeing faces in the trees, and I saw my daughter playing on the shore. We understood what was happening, and kept on fighting them. Talking about them helped a lot. We couldn't imagine how BeaV was able to do 91 hours on his own in 2017 (on a longer route with no shortcuts!) with no one else to keep him motivated or distracted.

Rose Lake was long and we were paddling hard after the refreshing food. We were soon comfortably warm in spite of the gradually rising (but still gentle) headwind, focused on reaching and crossing the 2 mile Long Portage as quickly as possible. Warmth seemed to correlate with hallucinations and sleepiness. Being cold seemed to make us paddle and portage faster in hopes of warming up.

Long Portage went quickly, then on to Rove and Watap Lakes where the headwind grew rapidly stronger, causing us to really work hard. Although we were very tired, the tunnel vision toward the end was strong, and we felt like we were on the home stretch.

We portaged to Mountain Lake and found that the dreaded headwind was there in full force, coming down the 7-mile long narrow wind tunnel lake and whipping up choppy waves. There was no choice but to plunge on, hugging the south shore for shelter and calmer water behind each slight point of land. We crept on and on, making slow but consistent headway. We stopped at a campsite for a bathroom break and snacks. The back pain from the first day was still bothering me, especially on the portages. The hallucinations got worse for me. I became convinced that the hills on the far shore were covered in strange writing which I couldn’t decipher. Perhaps they were billboards? Eventually I realized that they were just trees. Suddenly a small white blimp appeared next to the canoe and floated alongside.

“I’m losing it,” I told Matt, “we’ve got to talk to each other to stay focused.”

For the next hour we asked each other questions and tried to maintain a conversation, successfully keeping our minds clear, then we fell silent again. Gradually we worked up the shore of Mountain Lake, passed the narrows, and fought more headwind and hallucinations across the last 2 miles to Lesser Cherry Portage. There the cold wind helped us wake up and stay alert through the 3 short portages and 2 small lakes between Mountain and Moose Lakes.

The headwind on 4-mile long Moose Lake was not lessened, but we were awake and learning to turn off or ignore the hallucinations. They didn’t come back for the rest of the trip. Half way across the lake the headwind began to slacken, finally dying to a gentle manageable breeze as we reached the other end. Across the long Canadian-side portage to North Fowl Lake, we felt like we were finally in the endgame. It was 4:52pm. We had come 191 miles in 59 hours, with 25 miles left to Lake Superior (including the 8.5 mile Grand Portage). We thought we had enough time to make it to the Pigeon River rapids before dark, but we would be cutting it close.

We hurried south across the Fowl Lakes, then crossed the nasty 1-mile Fowl Portage as quickly as possible, reminding ourselves constantly about the rapids ahead. At 7:10pm we finished the portage and jumped into the canoe on the beautiful, glassy, fast-flowing Pigeon River. It was wonderful to fly down the river, carried by the current. The first 4 river miles were flat and clear, but we still paddled hard, going as fast as possible toward the rapids, determined to get there well before sunset.

Then we came around a bend and the water got wild. I picked a route through the rocks and standing waves and Matt paddled hard. We flew through at well over 10 mph. It was done in less than 2 minutes. For one scary moment the canoe hung broadside on a rock and nearly took on water, but then we swept over and flew on. Downstream we went for another few minutes, then came to the second and wilder set of rapids. This time we worked together flawlessly as a team, dodging every rock at breakneck speed until it was over as quickly as it began.

The final miles of the river were slower and calmer, but the current still gave us a strong boost. The sun disappeared at 9pm as we neared Partridge Falls, where we landed at the portage, having covered 12 miles in 2 hours.

Exhilarated by the rapids and truly happy for once, we got out our headlamps and quickly portaged around Partridge Falls, getting straight back on the water for the final 1.5 miles to Fort Charlotte, reaching the start of the 8.5 mile Grand Portage to Lake Superior at 10pm.

At Fort Charlotte we ate a last warm meal, then got ready for the final push. I would carry both of our packs; Matt would carry the canoe. Based on our pace last time on the Grand Portage, we expected this to go smoothly and quickly. Our goal was now to reach Lake Superior in a total time of 67 hours. Although we had been here twice before, we had a little trouble finding the start of the portage in the dark, but once we found it we were off. Not for long. Almost immediately we came to a large fallen pine blocking the portage. Matt had to push the canoe over and then come around to the other side to get it. Then we came to another, and another, and another. The trail was also very muddy, but we told ourselves that it would certainly get better the closer we got to roads and civilization. It did not. We struggled along past downed tree after downed tree. Matt followed me because he couldn’t see whether he was about to walk into a tree or not, and he bumped into several. He told me later that for most of the portage he was very light-headed and disoriented, barely able to see where he was going in the dim headlamp light, and feeling like he was watching himself from outside as he walked. We reached the boardwalk at the beaver pond, then pushed on through more of the same, unable to make even 2 mph. It turned into a nightmare of fighting past leaning and downed trees. Matt couldn’t easily duck the canoe under the leaning trees, which were some of the worst obstacles. We reached the Old Highway 61 gravel road, and I could tell that the trail was taking its toll on him. I was almost feeling fresh, but he was getting steadily quieter and slower. The deadfalls continued to block our path. Matt’s top speed, even between deadfalls, slowed to 1.5 mph. I kept thinking that Highway 61 must be just ahead, but it never appeared. Just more downed trees. We were getting very frustrated with the trail conditions, and we felt that our record was slipping out of our grip. 68 hours came and went. Matt had more trouble staying on the trail and getting over the obstacles. I talked him through each obstacle, telling him how close we were. Once he carried the canoe straight off the trail into the woods. I had to yell at him to call him back and get him onto the trail. He refused to let me take the canoe. “I’m walking to the lake,” he said firmly. Feeling exasperated by the slow pace, I walked briskly ahead for a few minutes to find Highway 61, then dropped my packs and returned to let Matt know how close we were.

Finally, at 3am we crossed Highway 61, less than a mile remaining. And then at last we emerged at the Grand Portage Stockade, where Ruth and Rebecca were waiting and snapping pictures. Past the stockade, and down to the water. Matt got disoriented again and somehow couldn't find the water. He bashed the canoe into the wall of the fort, then I helped him down to the water. He dropped the canoe then we loaded our packs, climbed inside, and pressed the SPOT’s OK button at 3:25pm. We were done. Our final time was 69 hours 25 minutes.

Canoe in the water on Lake Superior, crescent moon rising behind us.

With GrandmaL at the finish.

Then we had to pull the canoe out of the water and portage back to the car. GrandmaL appeared, and took more photos. We did not have any good straps to tie the canoe on top of the car, so I stashed it in the woods. We drove to the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino and the girls helped us to the room. Matt took a shower, then I did, then we were snoring peacefully until morning.

Feeling refreshed in the morning.

A great trip, but one that neither of us ever wants to attempt again, at least not at such a pace. We gave it everything we had, and we are content.

With our wonderful support crew Ruth, Rebecca, and Annika at Grand Portage.